David Suzuki, biologist and environmentalist, during a recent visit to Alberta.

The University of Alberta’s dean of engineering believes his faculty faces “the worst crisis, a crisis of trust, that we’ve faced in more than three decades.”

The immediate cause of this perceived looming disaster for the U of A’s most favoured faculty? “The conferral of a single honorary degree,” wrote Fraser Forbes yesterday in an extraordinary open letter to what he terms “our Engineering Community.”

That is to say, the honorary degree that is still scheduled to be awarded to environmentalist and scientist David Suzuki by the U of A on June 7. While Dr. Forbes did not mention Dr. Suzuki by name, it is pretty clear whom he has in mind, since the decision to award the honorary Doctorate of Science appears by now to have convulsed the entire political and business establishment of Alberta with outrage.

U of A Engineering Dean Fraser Forbes (Photo: University of Alberta).

Dr. Forbes, to his credit, adopts a more moderate tone than the hysterics who are vowing to withdraw their donations to the university. As such, his remarks deserve a serious response. Nevertheless, his conclusions are troubling.

The degree promised to Dr. Suzuki, he argues, has made it “pointedly clear that the problem runs much deeper.” To wit: “Just how deeply Albertans feel that we have, without fairness or justification, been made climate-change pariahs by much of the world, as well as being vilified by our fellow Canadians.”

An argument could be made, I suppose, about who has been vilifying whom the most these days, when the state of discourse in this province has fallen to the point peaceful environmentalists are routinely referred to as “eco-terrorists” by respectable people like a former minister of energy. Nevertheless, Dr. Forbes has a point that Albertans are being made to feel like climate-change pariahs.

This kind of rhetoric by opponents of bitumen development is not particularly helpful, but it is the undoubted byproduct of a political culture in this province that routinely engages in climate change denial and over-the-top attacks on critics. It is also a toxic byproduct of a fossil fuel industry that approaches carbon reduction measures the world needs, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman put it in the New York Times last week, intending “to slow things down, so they can extract as much profit as possible from their existing investments.”

Author, former politician and former U of A faculty member Kevin Taft.

The hostility on our part is a natural reaction by citizens of countries and regions – Russia and Alberta are both examples – who see the secret to their recent economic success threatened by change driven by new technology, climate change and a retreating fossil fuel industry.

Anger will not change the trend line, though. Dr. Forbes may be right when he says the problem runs deeper. But I very much doubt that has much to do with the fundamental values of the engineering community being questioned. On the contrary, who do you think is designing all those ways to extract energy from renewable sources? Highly educated engineers, for the most part, some of them no doubt trained at the University of Alberta.

The fundamental problem this situation suggests is not any distrust of engineers or engineering – there’s very little evidence for that. It’s the complete corporate capture by the oil industry of the government of Alberta and its institutions – including the University of Alberta. This has been chronicled persuasively by author Kevin Taft, a veteran of both the Alberta Legislature and the faculty of the University of Alberta.

Corporate domination of the academy is one of the tragedies of our era. It is a threat to intellectual inquiry, and that includes inquiry in the sciences, and to our democracy itself.

In most universities, forestry is treated as a branch of engineering, and it sounds very much to me as if in this case, the dean of engineering can’t see the forest for the trees. His solution, at any rate, would be worse than the problem presented by Dr. Suzuki’s honour – which, in reality, is not very outrageous, notwithstanding the heat being generated nowadays in some of the darker corners of the Internet.

Dr. Forbes argues: “It is critically important that our voice – the Engineering voice, the voice of Alberta’s industrial sectors, including energy and natural resources – is given a place at the table of the key decision-making bodies of our university.” That is to say, the University Senate, which Dr. Forbes complains is the sole selector of honorary degree recipients.

This sounds to me as if he is suggesting that the engineering faculty, and the corporations that hire its graduates, be given a veto over who gets honorary degrees.

The only saving grace of such a scheme is that it would never work in practice, because the Senate would assign the job to a committee, just as it does now, which now and then would make controversial choices, just as it did this time.

I suppose we can be thankful at least it wasn’t a right-wing intellectual arousing outrage in the academy, or we’d never hear the end of it in the pages of the National Post and the Globe and Mail! Still, the U of A ought not to let itself be pushed down that dangerous path.

Dr. Forbes concludes his cri de coeur with the avowal he is deeply sorry, ashamed even, “for the hurt that we at the University have caused Albertans in the last two weeks.”

Well, it’s a free country. He can be sorry if he wishes. Me, I’m proud of the University of Alberta for valuing more than one point of view, and for honouring a recipient of the Order of Canada who has done so much to popularize scientific inquiry, even when its results are politically inconvenient.

And so I have some advice for Dr. Forbes, even though I’m not a part of the engineering community, whose thinking and advice he solicited.

Upset as you are about this honour, Dr. Forbes, don’t let your friends try to roll it back by withdrawing their donations to your faculty or other departments at the University of Alberta.

If they succeed, it will be a black mark on the intellectual reputation of the U of A, a great university, and it will be a great victory for those who would, “without fairness or justification,” turn all Albertans into climate-change pariahs.

Do not imagine even for an instant such a foolish decision would not be create a real crisis of trust for the University of Alberta.

For that reason alone, if there was ever a time for the U of A Senate to stick to its guns and welcome Dr. Suzuki to Edmonton in June, this is it!

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  1. Regarding this: ‘Dr. Forbes argues: “It is critically important that our voice – the Engineering voice, the voice of Alberta’s industrial sectors, including energy and natural resource’

    Specifically this: ‘the voice of Alberta’s industrial sectors’

    Oh my… That a Dean of a public university conceives of his role and his dept’s role as representing private industry sectors is definitely a symptom of oil industry’s capture of gov’t and public institutions.

    But it’s also fairly glaring evidence of the corporatist nature of society in Alberta. We really aren’t a functioning democratic society. When vested interests effectively rule over public policy in joint-venture with gov’t and public institutions, then the public good, the general welfare of the citizenry and future generations is effectively marginalized.

    As political writers like Mark Lisac first observed in the early 90s, Alberta’s governance system has drifted from elected governments representing citizens and serving the public good, to functioning as a corporatist polity on the model best described in John Ralston Saul’s treatment of corporatism in the 2005 re-issue of The Unconscious Civilization – Massey Lectures. Interest groups effectively govern our politics, and elections merely change the junior partners, who manage the negotiations over public policy with the vested interests.

    It was during the first round of budgeting after Klein’s first election, that his cabinet brought leading industry executives right into the budgeting process sitting right beside the top civil servants. At one public meeting of this kind of corporate partnering, a former NDP MLA said it was fascism. He was wrong as Lisac pointed out in his book The Klein Revolution, it’s corporatism. A society organized around interests and interest groups have political legitimacy and decide public policy. Corporatist political theory that had emerged in the late 1800’s was merely grabbed up by Mussolini to provide the operating structure for his fascism.

    FWIW, it’s Chapter 9 of Lisac’s book The Klein Revolution that sets out how he saw corporatism emerge in AB as the new mode of governance. The chapter’s titled The Corporate Province. And it’s obviously become more embedded.


      1. If their money comes with strings attached to the entire University, then it should on no account be accepted in the first place. Let them give to the UCP, and be damned to them.

      2. “Greg Gartner, a founding partner of Moodys Gartner Tax Law, says his firm has withdrawn its commitment to fund $100,000 over five years to the U of A’s faculty of law in response to the choice of honorary degree recipient.”
        But he had no problem when Wayne Gretzky received an honorary degree in law at least David Suzuki is a scientist receiving an honorary degree in science.

        1. My late dad was a scientist – an astrophysicist – and when the institution where he worked decided to give him an honorary degree celebrating his work for the university, they gave him a doctorate of laws. Go figure! DJC

  2. .. the educational systems have been infiltrated by Big Energy
    Universities, High Schools, Primary level
    I won’t go into detail.. but it is so..
    and its disgraceful in our view

    Big Energy seeks to affect curriculum
    Take a look at what is happening at Penn State
    where Big Energy is entrenched
    re hydraulic fracturing.. fracking
    then start looking for where the phenomena
    is repeated.. this is a strategic campaign

  3. Having obtained my Ph D at the U of A, I absolutely agree with your position on this. The role of a professor is to profess. That does not mean conforming to some generally accepted standard but rather to be able to clearly articulate and defend a vision or model. It is through resolving differences in ideologies that we make progress.



  4. Well, I guess if we needed more evidence that the oil industry has a stranglehold on AB institutions, now we have it. If we needed another demonstration that the population is infantilized, look no further.
    Thanks to the Dean of Oilsands for making a laughing-stock of the UofA.
    All the sound and fury from the oil mafia just cements AB’s reputation.

  5. I’ve got reservations about some of Suzuki’s statements and actions, but on balance he’s made huge contributions to Canada as an educator and popularizer of science. I hope that U of A doesn’t fold under this hysterical attack from the usual Alberta thought police. I’d like to continue to be proud of my MSc (1981) from that fine institution.

  6. I think the debate about Suzuki is not some sort nefarious plot engineered by the evil oil industry, but a symptom of the political climate in Alberta, where frustration and anger over the seemingly never ending debates about pipelines going on for over a decade and still not resolved, is close to boiling over.

    I have always found the right wing obsession with terrorism a bit silly – sometimes I suspect they think there is a potential terrorist under every bed and so too I find the other side of the spectrum tends to go over board about evil oil. A lot of Albertans work in that industry directly or indirectly, so I am not surprised most Albertan do not see it as evil, as some who work in sectors of the economy more isolated from the Alberta mainstream economy.

    In any event, I am sure the Conservatives are loving this pipeline debate – it is an unexpected political gift. Almost all of their supporters are pro pipeline, whereas the Liberals are divided on this issue and probably the majority of NDP supporters are against the pipeline. As an added bonus, most polls consistently have shown more Canadians support the pipeline than not and increasing environmental action and the action to fight it by the BC government seems to be driving more people to support the pipeline. I am sure they can not believe their good fortune and are eagerly looking forward to killing Trudeau’s carbon tax, both in Alberta and elsewhere. I suspect they hope that it will do for them politically what Harper’s pledge to cut the GST did for his support. In the big picture, its really not a big tax cut, but symbolically they can probably easily spin it to make it seem bigger.

    Personally I don’t have a problem with Suzuki getting recognition from the U of A. He is a good scientist and has done a lot to promote science and nature. His TV shows are excellent. However, I think when he veers into political debates, that is not his strength. I think that like some environmental activists or zealots, he can do more harm to his own cause than good. Sometimes there is a backlash in mainstream opinion against those that are too strident. I am not sure what is achieved by winning moral victories, but losing the political battles.

    I suspect privately Kenney is laughing about the Suzuki situation and I imagine if he could, he would send a big donation to the Alberta Green Party right now. However, I am not sure how long the Conservative good fortune on this issue will continue. I suspect, one way or another, the BC pipeline debate will be resolved before the next Alberta election and by then Suzuki’s visit to Alberta will be long forgotten too.

    1. re: probably the majority of NDP supporters are against the pipeline.

      Actually as an NDP supporter I’ve been watching the polling that’s been done over the last couple years. A large majority of NDP’rs support building pipelines. 60-70% if one had to pick a range based on the polling.

      My view is that AB got wealthy due to our oil/gas/oilsands and we therefore have the highest responsibility to take the lead on transitioning off of fossil fuels, ASAP. More infrastructure to make more development possible is unethical if we actually care about future generations. Letting oilsands increase their GHGs another 40% to 2030 is not climate action. The so-called oilsands cap of 100MT is business as usual. And climate catastrophes are already a thing. Alberta politics are corrupt. Private interests before the public good.

      But AB’s political culture is due decades of industry and RW MSM and political leaders telling us we Albertans must support continued growth of fossil fuels because that’s just who we are. So I’m not surprised that AB NDP have had to do whatever it takes for oilsands pipelines.

  7. Where were these morons and their boycotts when Dr. Suzuki was awarded honorary degrees by the University of Prince Edward Island, the University of Windsor, Acadia University, Trent University, Governors State University, Lakehead University, McMaster University, Queen’s University, Carleton University, Amherst College, Griffith University, the Open University, Whitman College, Unity College, Simon Fraser University, York University, Universite de Quebec a Montreal, Flinders University, Ryerson University, the University of Western Ontario, Lambton College, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Universite Sainte-Anne, Universite Laval, the University of British Columbia and the University of Guelph? Oh, and THE UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY!

  8. Thank you for taking this stance and showing that not all influential Albertans aren’t in the thrall of the puppet masters. As you know, Dr. Suzuki is the climate change deniers’ lightning rod, attracting the most extreme vitriol and opprobrium from the shallow end of the Alberta gene pool. His selection is a rare breath of fresh air in a province bent on environmental degradation.

    1. Not only in Alberta. Ad hominem arguments abound when his detractors take aim. The fact that David Suzuki flies in airplanes and owns property only proves he’s a money grubbing so called environmentalist. They wouldn’t be satisfied unless he rode across the world on a bicycle with fifty cents to his name.

      1. Nothing at all would satisfy them, because they are not arguing in good faith, because they are faithless and corrupt.

  9. Methinks the good Doctor doth protest too much. Lack of confidence in engineers? I guess it depends on which kind. It is hard to have confidence in the ones who saddled Alberta with two 500 kV DC electrical transmission lines to nowhere when most of the electricity already comes from either natural gas or renewables – neither of which needed those obsolete lines.

  10. There is no doubt that David Suzuki’s advocacy could do damage to the energy industry. In that context, it is interesting to think of other industries that have been damaged by inconvenient research, and then to imagine a world where the industry had succeeded in suppressing the research.

    Imagine how vibrant Canada’s asbestos industry would be if it were not for those academic busybodies. Ditto the tobacco industry. I spoke to a tobacco farmer in the mid-eighties, when governments were just starting to consider using legislation discourage smoking. Almost foreshadowing the arguments used by the energy industry, she emphasized all the employment, and economic benefits, that result from the labour intensive tobacco farming, and how many people would lose their jobs if tobacco farmers were to switch to another crop.

    Environmental researchers raised the alarm about how aerosols were damaging the ozone layer, and that problem has, I understand, been mostly corrected. How many cases of skin cancer have been avoided?

    There is no denying we need fossil fuels – no doubt Dr. Suzuki will use them to get his degree. At the same time there is also no denying we need to find a way off of them.

    People who want to muzzle Dr. Suzuki might want to think about how their families would have been affected if earlier industries had been successful muzzling their critics.

  11. I am against this honorary degree for completely different reasons. Quite simply Suzuki is a hack and a hypocrite. His carbon footprint exceeds the average person by annorder of magnitude but he has the gall to preach to the rest of us. He’s been proven wrong time and time again but never retracts his statements. He stopped being a reputable scientist years ago.

    1. “Hypocrisy” does not enter into this, Suzuki is not a hack, and I would like you to specify three instance where he “has been proven wrong” and failed to retract or revise his position.

  12. Being and anarchist is no bed of roses, wild or otherwise. Disturbing shyte is a messy affair. Why do I preamble? Well, because our problems as a species are right here now where we can see them, and yet there these religious and capitalistic motivations that want to pitch us into fatalism or worse. I’ve never been a fan of communism any more than I’ve been a fan of capitalism, however, I am a humanist. In that spirit, please read this: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/apr/20/yanis-varoufakis-marx-crisis-communist-manifesto PS: I’ll have the liver of anyone who denies my free expression!

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